The Lesson Of Impressionism

THE more one sees of artists, the more one learns of their dependence on the model ; the more one sees them eager to study the thing painted. But they apply to nature for different purposes, for anatomy, for surface character, for colour, for details, for movements, for values, for an impression of effect, for arrangements to fill a given space. Great painters of all schools from Leonardo to Whistler have so often acknowledged nature as the mistress that the admission becomes a truism were it not capable of being understood in so many different ways. It is a fresh reading of this precept that makes a new art ; other considerations then become means to an end. Composition, colour, brushing, etc., receive a new consideration. Their effectiveness and their possibilities of style are over-hauled and esteemed according as they can forward the expression of the central conception of natural beauty.

Carducho, a colleague of Velasquez, waged war against the influence of naturalism in art, exalting traditional and learned painting above sensitiveness to nature. But Michael Angelo, a fountain of learning and a head source of idealism, rose from the bowels of nature, springing, it is true, from another soil than Velasquez, from the objective rather than the subjective position. He grubbed into the depths of anatomy and studied nature as it was, concerning himself comparatively little with its aspect to the eye or its relation to the nerves of vision. To the learned decorator it seemed but a trivial thing to catch the flavour of life whilst filling a panel, to recreate in the subtle structures of the eye vibrations of a long hereditary past, and to recommend a present sentiment to the spectator’s old habits of visual emotion. However, as we have seen in the history of mathematical invention, a new calculus is never to be counted useless. It is like the seeds which they say lie everywhere in the soil ready to sprout after fires or any favourable changes in the soil. So naturalism has grown like a grain of mustard-seed and the impressionism of Velasquez overshadows art. The test of a new thing is not utility, which may appear at any moment like a shoot with the first favouring breath of spring. The test is the kind and amount of human feeling and intellect put into the work. Could any fool do it? Now, in this matter of depicting truth there are eyesights of all grades of breadth, of grandeur, of subtlety, and art has more than the delicacy of a tripos examination in tailing out as in a foot-race all the talents and capabilities of the competitors.

The great idealist of Italy was admirable, but he is dead, his work is done, and when it was doing it was at least based on matter, on anatomy, on the laws of decoration. There is a modern idealist whose whole cause seems to be hatred of matter, of the truth, of the visible, of the real, and a consequent craving for the spiritual, the non-material. That this man should choose painting or sculpture, the most material, the most tied to representation of the arts seems indeed a non-sense.

Yet one cannot help feeling some sympathy with those who start on this hopeless cruise, who wreck the ship whilst steering to some visionary island of spiritualism. They are as those who dream of ideal love, and yet forgive no shortcoming, and persistently despise and misuse ordinary human affections, as those who wish for a perfect society and cannot take pains to understand their own day or their own country. This temperament is ruinous to the artist. He neglects the material base of art, despises drawing and modelling, and sacrifices the conquest of nature as readily as a faddist, the well-being of a great empire to his dreams. The true artist’s thought is of his material, of its beauties, of its limitations, of its propriety to the task proposed. He has to achieve beauty, but under conditions—of fact, of decoration, of a medium. It may be seen in the work of Velasquez that there is no base reality ; that the commonplace lies only in the method of a mean, a small, and an inartistic eye. It was not only his immediate subjects but the whole art of seeing that Velasquez dignified in his paintings.

Leon Pelouse, the French landscape-painter, used to say that the gift of the naturalist lay in the power of recreating the eye of childhood. When the child first sees—before he can walk, before he can know what all these coloured spots of various shapes and strengths may mean—he receives from a field of sight an impression of the values of colour and the forces of definition utterly unadulterated by knowledge of distance, depth, shape, utility, and the commercial, religious, or sexual importance of objects. Indeed, he is not biassed by that chief disturber of impression, the knowledge that any objects exist ; in fact, he sees men as trees walking. He sees patterns, and it takes him years to know what these patterns, these changing gradations, these varying smudges signify, and when he has learnt that, in proportion as he has succeeded, so he has ceased to know the original vision, and to perceive mentally the signs by which he originally determined the truth.

If the conventionality of an art that expresses three dimensions by two was not enough to assure us, then the foregoing statement must make it certain that the modern painter should concern himself very much about what seems, and scarcely at all about what is. Yet people will tell you that it is just the impressionist picture which looks strange to them, and the illogical dictionary of small objects which looks natural. The observation that a horse at a distance is not of the same shape as a horse near at hand is at least as old as Leonardo. He describes how the limbs disappear first, the neck and head next, as the distance increases, until you are aware only of an oblong or oval splash. But practice lagged long behind theory, and there are painters to-day, especially in England, who would not paint the real appearance of an object at different distances. They are behind the scenes, as it were, and, knowing that they are to produce a horse, they paint it exactly as they have studied it near at hand, only they make it small, like a toy, because it is far off. Some hundreds of years ago they would have refused even that concession to the then strange and novel art of perspective. These toy boats on the sea, these toy cows in the meadows, these toy soldiers in the battlefield, are not big things seen far off, but little miniatures near at hand, compelled by perspective to occupy a false position on the canvas.

Many Royal Academy pictures, and the most popular ones, are still full of these comic little dolls, which pretend to realism of effect. Such rude compilations of objects, studied at different focuses, are easily shown to be logically defective, but it is less easy to perceive the more subtle disaster incurred by a similar fault in figure subjects, where everything takes place somewhat close at hand. Comparison of the definitions and gradations of a fine Velasquez with those of an ordinary picture is, perhaps, the most ready way to perceive the vulgarity of the cheap method which exaggerates out-lines, and replaces tone and gradation by false explanatory definition. To draw a silly line in a mouth, eye, or nose, where no line should be, merely because you have been taught painting by means of chalk-drawing, implies a gross violation of the lighting of a portrait, just as putting toy boats and cows in the distance implies a contradiction of perspective.

What is the harm, you may ask, of painting a picture piecemeal, since it is on the fiat, and may be viewed from any distance ? Cannot the canvas always be easily embraced by the eye as a whole ? Quite so, and, because it then fails to give a truthful impression of the field it offers, it deceives expectation and violates the confidence of the eye. The compilation of sketches, or focuses of impression, induces false perspective, false values, false colour, a false proportion of detail to mass, and a combination of interests in false relation to the interests of the whole picture. Velasquez may have painted ” Las Meninas ” how he pleased, yet he kept before himself a single impression of the scene, and therefore he succeeds in conveying it to the spectator. He may have studied each figure separately ; he may have stood nearer to them in so doing than he makes the spectator appear to stand, but, if so, his artistic conviction of the true aspect of the ensemble was sufficiently strong to prevent him from executing his picture solely for the sake of each square yard he successively tackled. How many pictures of the scope of ” Las Meninas,” or ” The Spinners,” comfortably fill the eye as they do, and absorb the attention so justly and evenly all over that, at a certain distance, the sight neither wanders nor sticks, at special points ?

Everybody knows the condition under which a man receives an effective visual impression, one that goes to mould his view of the world. Whether he is looking at a piece of still life, or is standing in a vast landscape, he looks in a half dream ; he ceases to think, to feel his own identity, for his whole consciousness is absorbed in the eye. At these moments a certain focus is used, a certain width of field is embraced, and these are not determined by the man’s conscious will, but by the nature of his impression. To shift that focus to make that field larger or smaller is to destroy the mood which produced the impression.

If a cardboard of nearly ten inches wide be held at arm’s-length it can be comfortably regarded as a whole, and of course any view, however distant, that it might cover. But if it be placed at forty feet from the eye, not without intentional effort or strain can the whole attention be exclusively centred upon its area. On the other hand, if it be held at about ten inches from the eye one can embrace as a whole no more than such a small bit of it as would cover the entire cardboard held at arm’s-length. It would be wrong to say that it is impossible to paint a larger field of sight than is naturally embraced as one whole by the eye, but it is certain that one would be compelled to determine the force of many values or definitions in this too wide field by reason instead of by feeling. Safety would lie only in a very conventional line of treatment. Many realists, however, would paint the scene covered by the card-board held at ten inches from the eye by adding together innumerable little impressions of fields covered by the cardboard at forty feet from the eye. As far as a perception of the ensemble goes, they remain as much in the dark as a child of the final result of a long sum in addition.

To lay down strict rules in such matters of feeling as the width of an area of impression would be to fetter practice, but it is curious to note that Leonardo, centuries ago, suggested that the painter should be supposed to stand at a distance from his picture of three times its largest measurement. It was Leonardo also who proposed to show the effect of distance on local colour by painting on a sheet of glass held up before the subject of a picture. The value of the green of an elm at a hundred yards from you could be thus compared with the value of that same green at two or three hundred yards. In the same way, if any one desires to convince himself of the subtleties of natural definitions, let him take a brush and pretend to paint, on the pane of a window, the view which he sees through the glass. When he would follow the sinuosities of form, obey the subtle changes of definition, do justice to the myriad delicacies of detail, he will confess that he has undertaken a task too delicate for the nicest of Pre-Raphaelite nigglers. It will be plain to him that the scene must be treated, and the main relations alone given. Twigs, stones, slates, grass, leaves, can only be suggested ; an attempt to define them really could result in nothing but a coarse travesty, which must inevitably lessen the effect of the more important markings. By varying his distance from the pane, the experimenter may convince himself that the difficulties of painting the scene increase as the field of sight widens. He will see that a wide angle must be treated differently from a narrow one, a motif with one bold, detaching mass, differently from one containing several smaller importances. Besides meeting these more evident exigencies, he must allow something for personal feeling. He will find out how to realise on canvas the impression of some object, how it should be placed on the canvas, how much field shall surround it, and what portion of that field, if any, represents a space lightly skimmed by the mind, but a space nevertheless necessary to impart some quality or some meaning to the chief object.

It may be argued that you have only to imagine a glass subtending to the eye, the same angle as the said pane of glass, but much farther off, and a brush fifty yards long to solve the difficulties of landscape painting. Only in life-size painting of figure or still life can this be realised practically, and then only mechanical difficulties are removed. The problems of how to employ modelling, relative forces of definition, and range of colour, in treating scenes of various widths, depths, and fulness of interest, still remain to be solved by artistic feeling. But in this life-size painting the task is more evident, at least to the reason, and for this cause, possibly, impressionism was first fully made manifest in the work of a portrait painter, Velasquez.

People who use both the terms, realism and impressionism, discriminate their meanings, and certainly those who paint impressionistically will not confound their practice with that of some realists. But many people, in speaking of impressionism, imply that it must be unmodelled, scarce drawn, roughly surfaced, ugly, at least commonplace in subject. Others hold that whatever else it may do, it must represent, like an instantaneous photograph, passing movements by blotches and blurs, and show you strange and really unimpressionistic attitudes never seen in life, but mechanically revealed by the camera. The work of Velasquez should be sufficient evidence to persuade them that they misunderstand the question.

Let us look at some of the uses of the term realism. After an age dealing with saints in the clouds, or gods in Olympus, a man may be called a realist because he paints real life, a battle, the coronation of an emperor, or boors drinking. This distinction of subject has been shown on an earlier page to have little weight in the art of painting ; and one may observe that, after courtly subjects are exhausted, this bastard realism of motif is confined to low life. Nevertheless, there is a realism, not literary, but pictorial ; the realism of treatment which is applicable to any subject, religious, mythological, heroic, courtly, or lowlived, even to still life and landscape. Orpheus, Endymion, Hope, Love, Cesar crossing the Rubicon, or a man digging potatoes, may any of them be conceived realistically, and painted from the model. But when we admit this, and discriminate realism of subject from realism of treatment, we still meet with various degrees of realism. This man may be realistic in form only, and fanciful in lighting and relations of value. That man, again, may idealise form and yet paint it under a realistic effect. In fact, realism of treatment depends on a piecemeal sort of observation which may be taken in instalments by successive schools. There is a realism of drawing, of effect, of local colour, of atmosphere, of values, and all and any of these are pictorial in their nature.

Now, impressionism allows many and divers impressions, but each records a truth of general aspect. The whole effect of the canvas conveys a definite idea which has ordered every element—drawing, colour, and definition. Schools of painters are not, of course, divided absolutely into decorative, realist, and impressionist ; but we name them after the prevailing intention of their works. The difference between realism and impressionism may be illustrated out of the past by the contrast between the Eclectics and the Naturalists on the one hand, and Velasquez on the other. The art of the first added, the other sprouted fresh qualities ; one held its virtues in solution, the other in chemical combination.

Those who have not been taught from the beginning in an impressionistic school must remember difficulties which beset them when they were working from nature, and will recall how they only slowly began to appreciate the meaning and the necessity of working from a single impression. How often it seemed to them impossible to finish a picture. The more closely they applied themselves to study and complete a part, the more it seemed to change to their eyes, and to invalidate their previous observations. After having left his canvas for a rest such a man came back to find this or that edge cut as if with a knife, this shadow which should be blue and broad, hot and speckled, and certainly all the mystery, grandeur, or delicacy of the natural model painted out in common-place. Again and again he tries, and each time that he brings a fresh eye to bear upon the model, he finds that all its characteristic beauty has evaporated from his work. He may never attempt to enter upon completeness, he is kept in the ante-room of preliminary changes.

Now, all his separate observations may have been true, but they were all made under different conditions of attention to the scene ; whereas, until every part of the picture has been observed in subservience to the impression of the whole, completeness can never be even begun. The largeness, the dignity, the swim of nature seen under a distributed attention is continually contradicted by the appearances which result from separate observations made upon smaller fields of sight. A shadow on the yellow sand will alternately seem cold or warm, blue or orange, according to the concentration or diffusion of the sight. Everyone knows that when a shadow is looked at alone it appears more full of colours than when the surrounding sunlit parts of the view are taken in and are allowed to operate on the shadow.

Many people must have seen English painters who went out of their way to confuse their eyesight and destroy all unity of impression. Some begin a large landscape at the top of one corner, and finish it all the way down bit by bit. Others make use of all kinds of dodges to deceive themselves as to the impression a natural scene has made on their senses. These make a tunnel with their hands to shut out everything but the one patch of colour they are matching. These hold up white paper to gauge a value ; these match tints upon a palette-knife held against the hues of nature ; these cut holes in a card to look through ; and these peep through their legs, their half-shut eyes, or into a small black mirror. Such devices confound and obliterate the natural impression when they are used as a means of finishing a picture. Yet they have some of them a true use, which is to persuade a beginner of the relativity of tones and definitions, and their dependence upon general impressions. Surely, however, it cannot but lead to painting false aspects if one should try to learn anything particular from nature seen under such conditions. I have often seen men painting sunsets who would shade out the sky with a hat or hand that they might see what they were pleased to call the true colour of the ground. Of course, the grass instantly became of quite another colour to what it had been when the sky entered the painter’s eyes at the same time. But they seemed unaware that they were painting by this process two quite different effects in one frame.

English teaching has been contrary to impressionism, and Velasquez has not been sufficiently, or at any rate rightly, admired. Many painters and writers of influence have condemned impressionism in a manner which showed that they neither knew nor cared anything about it. Whatever has been gained in England in this direction lately has been gained at the bayonet point of abuse and strong language. The English schools never taught one to place ” a figure or cast on the canvas. They would not permit of blocking in either squarely or roundly. They expected you to begin a thing by finishing. They accustomed the student from the outset of his career to overlook subtle differences of large planes, to miss the broader sweep of a line for the sake of tight detailed modelling, and the exaggerated indenting of small bays in an outline. They gave gold medals to chalk drawings in which every little muscle was modelled up to a high light, whilst an important change of plane, such as the set-back of the chest, was shown by a wrong general value. It is not wonderful that people so taught saw only one side of the art of Velasquez, and that their system of teaching is now abandoned for one which has been, to a large extent, based on the practice of the great Spanish impressionist.